The Man Who Built Lucas Oil Stadium

The mammoth NFL gridiron sprawling out across this city’s southern flank has long been called “the house that Peyton Manning built,” a tribute to the Hall of Fame Colts quarterback. But it was a man who stood nearly a foot shorter and, perhaps, 75 pounds lighter, who really was responsible for building Lucas Oil Stadium.

Gov. Mitch Daniels had campaigned on a 70-plus point agenda when he defeated Gov. Joe Kernan in 2004. By the time he took office, the capital city was at loggerheads with the Colts, the NFL, and the General Assembly over building a new stadium. There was no funding mechanism in place. The team, it appeared, would be headed to Los Angeles. Mayor Bart Peterson and his team approached the new governor. “They came to see me, asking if could we pull it off, could we do it,” Daniels told Howey Politics Indiana in a February interview.

“Having looked at it, we thought it was in the broad public interest. It’s always important to point out to people that 90-plus percent of the events were not Colts games. We wouldn’t have built a stadium just for the football team, much as I love the Colts. But it was the convention business and the almost year-round revenue that made it a real good idea.” The Daniels Team focused at first on a 2% restaurant tax, but the city already had a 1% tax and a 2% difference with its neighboring counties was deemed unacceptable. “So that’s why we decided to talk to the surrounding counties,” Daniels said. “We finally worked out a proposal where after it was paid and we knew this would be more than enough to cover it, they would share in the overage.” Two audacious strategies emerged.

The first was to convene county officials from the doughnut counties to make a pitch from out of left field. The second would be to use the new governor’s nascent political capital to make the sale, sans Mayor Peterson and General Assembly leaders. “In one of the most interesting moments in the entire eight years, I invited the county elected officials, commissioners, county counselors from the doughnut to a confidential meeting at the Governor’s Residence,” Daniels said.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, who was Daniels’ deputy chief of staff at the time, told HPI in January, “We were there. We got criticized for breaking the Open Door Law because we had every county commissioner there and politely pointed out every single commissioner was a Republican.” Daniels explained, “It happened that they were all Republicans at that time. That was crucial, because then the meeting could be held in confidence and not in public. This thing would never have happened; you’d have no stadium, no convention expansion and no Colts, probably, if that meeting had been held out in the open. Anyway, we had that meeting. We showed them a lot of data, how many people from their counties worked downtown, worked in hospitality, how many hotel rooms in their county filled up during conventions or even games. And then we said, ‘Go to separate corners here, and tell us whether you can help us with this.’ “All but one county did,” Daniels explained. That set the stage for the rookie governor to make the case for a tax increase in the doughnut counties to pay for a downtown Indianapolis NFL stadium. Gov. Daniels showed up at a Golden Corral in Shelbyville, the Hamilton County Council chambers, as well as stops in Greenfield, Lebanon and the three other counties.

In Lebanon, Gov. Daniels politely accepted a question from a Boone County man wearing a green “My Man Bitch” tee shirt and earnestly answered. It was the kind of moment that would have made other governor handlers cringe and steadfastly avoid. Gov. Atlas just shrugged. The Greenfield Daily Reporter’s headline read, “Don’t force-feed food tax, citizens warn governor” and its lead story began, “A vocal group of Hancock County residents told Gov. Mitch Daniels Monday they object to a 1% food and beverage tax being shoved down their throats.”

After Daniels appeared in Noblesville, Hamilton County Council President John Hiatt said he had initial misgivings about the proposal, saying feedback from the public had been 50/50. “I was on the fence before tonight, but I’ll probably vote for it,” he told the Noblesville Daily Times. Commissioner Christine Altman agreed. “He opened it up to all the questions, he addressed all the issues, and I was just very impressed,” she said. When it was all said and done, all one county approved of the plan. Lucas Oil Stadium was built (with the state in control), the Colts (and Peyton Manning) staying put. “The point is, after all the consternation, on the back side of that we had a great venue, a new convention center, all that new business and we had a Super Bowl, and we kept the Colts,” Daniels said. “And, believe me, without that process, that doesn’t happen. I’ve told people over the years, here’s one of the untold stories.” In the June 9, 2005, edition of HPI, this was the observation: “The people loved this governor coming to their hometowns to sell and defend something that would have been unfathomable in times gone by. Many of them didn’t agree with him on the tax hikes. But few were rolling their eyes or spewing under their breath as they left.

In the Nov. 27, 2012, edition of HPI, it was observed: “By definition, the word ‘transformation’ is a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance. In a political or policy context, the word is often used in association with war, revolution or economic crisis. And in the Hoosier experience, the word clashes with 196 years of stereotype: We are a conservative people, cautious, suspicious, resistant to change. Interrupting this history in key moments has been the transformational governor, almost always thrust into that role by the churning events of the day. As Hoosiers at the turn of this century, we have witnessed such a governor in Mitch Daniels Jr.”

-The columnist is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs at Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.